Time and again in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,’’ one character or another will ask: “What happened?’’
In a narrow sense, that query relates to individual circumstances: a foreclosure, a fight, a woman’s dubious decision to let her estranged husband move back in with her, a newspaper story about a man who burned down his own house.
But in a big-picture sense, that plangent question — “What happened?’’ — is the one that the blue-collar workers in Nottage’s superbly textured play are collectively wrestling with as once-solid livelihoods, identities, and friendships start to crumble.
As portrayed by an exemplary cast under the incisive direction of Kimberly Senior, the responses of the workers to layoffs and a subsequent company lockout of union employees at the Reading, Pa., steel tubing factory, where some have worked on “the floor’’ for decades range from fear to bewilderment to raw fury.
That makes the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat’’ a close cousin to plays like David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People’’ or, for that matter, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,’’ as a study of the desperation that can burst through the surface when people are thrust into a state of economic precariousness.
Nottage is working on a bigger canvas, however. The tale of manufacturing decline, its human costs, and the wider fraying of the social fabric that she dramatizes in “Sweat’’ is a national story that continues to unfold today.
“Sweat’’ alternates from 2000 to 2008, and the audio news bulletins that punctuate the play — about everything from the booming stock market and the increase in income inequality to a new ordinance regulating the ownership of pit bulls in Reading — pointedly include updates on the 2000 presidential race. Much of the action transpires in a bar (designed by Cameron Anderson) where neon signs beckon customers to drown their sorrows with the wares of Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst.
The bar’s regulars include longtime friends and co-workers Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), who is Black, and Tracey (Jennifer Regan), who is white; the drink-addled Jessie (Marianna Bassham); Cynthia’s son Chris (Brandon G. Green) and Tracey’s son Jason (Shane Kenyon), who are also friends; and Brucie (Alvin Keith), Cynthia’s troubled husband and Chris’s father. Serving drinks and striving to keep the peace as the barroom atmosphere gets more fractious is the easygoing Stan (Guy Van Swearingen), while Stan’s Colombian-American assistant, Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega), mostly remains unobtrusively in the background. (The cast also includes Maurice Emmanuel Parent as a parole officer who appears in the scenes set in 2008.)
As uncertainty swirls around the plant in 2000, the friendship between Cynthia and Tracey becomes strained, with racial resentment entering the equation after Cynthia is promoted to warehouse supervisor, a job Tracey had also applied for. (Notably, company executives remain invisible in “Sweat,’’ even as they upend the lives of workers.) Matters deteriorate at the plant, forcing Cynthia into an impossible position, caught in the middle between her new job and her old friends. In a zero-sum environment, where everyone is competing for increasingly scarce jobs, an ugly showdown looms after one character in “Sweat’’ takes a fateful step.
While there are spots when Nottage seems to be checking off sociological boxes, and the opening scene in particular could be tightened, her gifts as a writer continue to be deepened by her exceptional powers of empathy. That was evident before “Sweat,” as Nottage ranged across genres from the shattering “Ruined’’ (which also won a Pulitzer, in 2009, for its portrait of Congolese women battling to recover from rapes committed in the midst of civil war); to the quietly poignant “Intimate Apparel’’ (about a Black seamstress in 1905 New York who weathers romantic complications while pursuing her dream to open a beauty parlor for Black women); to the pointed satire of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’’ (about the career-stunting impact of racial stereotyping on Black actors in Hollywood).
Right up to the final, throat-catching line of “Sweat,’’ Nottage extends her trademark empathy to everyone in the play, even the one whose behavior is the most odious. But she does not flinch from the fact that, when the economic vise tightens in America, the search for scapegoats is seldom far behind — and all too often those scapegoats are people of color. What happened, indeed.
Play by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through March 1. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org